We all carry within us a great potential for positive energy that can be expressed in friendship, love, compassion, appreciation of nature.
The most unhappy people often have difficulty accessing this positive energy. They believe that happiness should be given to them from outside and when they don’t receive it, they feel bitter and unfairly treated. And the more bitter they are, the more they encapsulate their own positive energy potential. It is important to reverse these viscious circles.
In her book, The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want, the scientist Sonja Lyubomirsky identifies twelve different evidence-based success strategies that we can all use to increase our happiness.
1. Express gratitude. Gratitude is the wonder and appreciation of life’s various large and small gifts. Too often we focus on the things we do’t have. Rarely, we take the time to reflect on everything good and positive that life is giving us.
One way to access happiness is to consciously and consistently try to see and be grateful for the positive aspects of life even in the hardest moments; to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. The ability to feel grateful means that we can enjoy what we have instead of focusing on what we don’t have.
Life is never black or white. Even in the deepest pains and sorrows there are moments of light, and being grateful for these moments helps us to move on. Persons who have been seriously ill or otherwise close to death, often appreciate the small joys of life.
The fact is that the older we become, the more we value the small everyday details that we did not even reflect on in our youth. It’s then not money and gadgets that are important, but family, friends and other human contacts.
Gratitude for what you have gives empathy and makes you happier, more spiritual, more forgiving, less materialistic and less prone to anxiety, jealousy, depression, anger and bitterness.
2. Be optimistic and think positively. If gratefulness is an apprecition of what is now and what has been, optimism is to think positively of the future; a belief and attitude that everything will become the best.
Optimism is not passive. The ability to see future opportunities is rather a driving force providing the motivation to do something about it, instead of giving up passively in advance and saying that good things will not happen to me anyway.
If the dream may be to become a veterinarian, the optimist will believe in her own ability and struggle to get high enough grades to be admitted to Vet School, while the pessimist who has already decided that it will not happen, does not consider it worthwhile to fight .
The optimist is also better than the pessimist to acquire a battery of different strategies to address situations when life becomes an uphill battle.
Optimism is not just an innate basic attitude but something that can be exercised. However, determination and perseverance is often necessary. It also requires knowing what you want to achieve and while on your way keep an eye on opportunities that pass by. The more you exercise optimism, the more integrated it will be in your thinking.
3. Avoid negative thoughts and stop comparing with others. Many unhappy people tend to dig deep into their troibles and adversities. When something happens to them, they often twist and turn the occurrence, running it over and over again, and have difficulty releasing it from their minds and move on.
Sometimes this focus on the negative and the feeling of being deceived and ill-treated, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when people in their surroundings ultimately tend to avoid them. Negative thoughts also drain energy and degrade performance, leading to further adversities.
These unhappy people also tend to constantly compare themselves with those seemingly having a better life than themselves, making them feel unsuccessful and less worthy. Sometimes it may even be that a comparison with those who being worse off leads to further misery as they may feel guilty instead. But more often they can be fulfilled by malice.
In contrast to this behavior, happy persons tend to spend significantly less time thinking about what has happened, and instead accept that life has its ups and downs. Happy persons also compare themselves to others to a much lesser extent than the unhappy, whether these other people are better or worse off. Instead, they measure success or backlash after an inner scale. This also allows them to more easily enjoy the success of others.
If you belong to those people who tend to submerge in negative thoughts, the most important way to happiness may be to try to break this destructive pattern.
4. Do kind things. According to the Bible, Jesus says, “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.” Compassion and good deeds is however not specific for Christianity, but are fundamental elements in all the other major religions; Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
It has long been known that happier people are kinder and more generous to their fellow human beings than unhappy persons, but Lyubomirsky’s research has also shown that good actions in themselves lead to increased happiness and that kindness and happiness interact in virtuous circles.
Good deeds also have a tendency to infect. When it comes to using this strategy to increase happiness, it is clear to increase these actions beyond what you normally do. If you consciously focus them on a particular day, they have more effect than smearing them out over the week. It is also important to vary and make things that feel right in the moment.
By doing good things you get an inner satisfaction even if no one else knows about your action, e.g. putting money in a stranger’s overdue parking metre. The ability to give without expecting to get something back, is one of the most powerful happiness factors available. But by being kind to others, you will often receive kindness back, because those around you will be happy to return the favous.
However, it is important to watch out so that you are not being used, as this feeling can give rise to less instead of more happiness.
5. Care for your relationships. This strategy has great similarities to being kind. Happy persons have more often stronger family ties, more friends and better love relationship than unhappy persons. This is not so strange. We are flock animals and close and reliable relationships with people around us have been a precondition for our survival during millions of years of evolution.
But conversely, we also become happier by having a strong network around us and a well-functioning relationship with our family and our partner. Happiness and relationships tend, as well as kindness, to strengthen each other in virtuous circles.
But we are not only happier, we are also getting healthier. People with strong social networks are both healthier and live longer than those who have fewer contacts. Fortunately, we are not becoming used to and lose appreciation for human relationships in the same way we become accustomed to material things.
Spending time and caring for your relationships can therefore be a very important long-term strategy for increasing your happiness and well-being.
Robin Sharma has described this very well in one of his many wise books, Who will cry when you die?. He writes “When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries while you rejoice” The book is an excellent guide in the art of living fully in a way that brings happiness to our lives.
6. Learn to cope. During the course of life, we will all (albeit to various degrees) encounter suffering, adversity and tragedy. Crucial to our happiness level is how well we cope with these unavoidable events.
A mostly male strategy is to intellectualise, i.e. to problematise what has happened, try to understand and then logically find solutions to move on. A more female strategy is to approach it emotionally, either by finding ways to dispel thoughts or seeking emotional support from friends and relatives.
With more chronic adversities, a combination of these two strategies is preferable. Men have much to win from learning more emotional approaches, while women could sometimes also be more problem-oriented, especially if it does not fall natural to them.
Regardless of your gender, it is important to try to identify the positive aspects that accompanies all adversities and mature and get wiser from suffering and difficulties. There is much in the old saying that what does not kill you will strengthen you.
7. To learn to forgive. One of the most powerful happiness strategies is forgiveness, and the more you suffer from another person’s actions, the more important it is for your own sake to forgive.
The natural reaction when someone hurts us is giving back or possibly avoiding that person. Both of these actions belittle us and limit our possibilities. Forgiveness prevents us from the bitterness that could otherwise become rooted within us and sometimes giving us much more suffering than the original injustice.
Forgiveness, therefore, is made primarily for our own sake. People who forgive are healthier, happier, more harmonious and less hateful, hostile, bitter and depressed than people who do not forgive.
Forgiveness does not mean to reconcile and become friends again. Nor is it about accepting a behaviour (it is always the person never the act you forgive), or that you forget about the injustice.
The forgiveness only means turning your own bitterness and willingness to hurt the other person into empathy and a feeling that you can move on without being burdened by what happened. When you release the bitterness, there will be more space inside to absorb positive energy, and a negative spiral could be turned to a positive one,
8. To strive for flow. Flow is an important key to creativity and happiness. The phenomenon is the amazing feeling that can arise when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that you lose sight of both time and space and become one with the action. The jazz saxophonist becomes one with the instrument, the alpinist becomes one with the mountain and the video gamer one with the game.
Typical for getting into flow, is that the action needs to be challenging, but within what’s possible. Flow also requires a constant feedback that you are on the right track. In flow you have full control and are totally present in the experience, and everything else loses its significance.
9. Enjoy life. Enjoyment has been defined as thoughts and behaviors that give rise to, reinforce and prolong well-being. The enjoyment is timeless. The enjoyment right now is strongly linked to the ability to be completely present in the present. It can be linked to an activity that gives rise to flow, but it can also be about taking a step back and enjoying something beautiful in nature, to consider a piece of art, to listen to beautiful music or to feel another human body. The more we connect our minds, the more we can enjoy the experience.
Enjoyment can be linked to past pleasurable or nostalgic memories of happy moments you have experienced. It may be your graduation day, the birth of your children or the first intoxicating feeling of being in love.
But you can also enjoy the future by fantasising about and visualising pleasurable things ahead of you. Common to all enjoyment, no matter when, is its reinforcement if you share the experience with others.
10. Set new goals. Having a goal to strive for where you are driven by your own inner motivation gives a great measure of satisfaction and raises your happiness levels. But it is also important to enjoy the journey itself towards the goal. I have written about this in a previous blog post; To find your Ithaka.
11. To exercise religion and spirituality. Content and happy people are often anchored in some kind of higher values beyond oneself, giving a deeper meaning to life. For some people, these higher values exist in religion, for others in a more general spirituality or in a completely secular philosophy of life such as humanism.
Believers and spiritual people are generally happier than non-believers and also find it easier to come back after a difficult life crises . Although this has been shown in many studies, it is more uncertain why.
Possible explanations may lie in a healthier lifestyle, stronger social networks, or beliefs acting as a comfort in difficult situations. If one believes that there is a greater meaning behind life’s difficulties, it may also be easier to accept these without bitterness.
Faith or spirituality can also be linked to other happiness-promoting factors such as forgiveness. Spirituality is not the same as religiousity. One does not need to associate with a particular belief, community or church to be spiritual.
Instead, it is about the belief that you are part of a larger context beyond time and space coupled with a sense of reverence for phenomena around us whether it’s nature, your children or something else.
12. Take care of your body. A good way to take care of your body is through regular meditation, a habit that, in addition to making you more conscious, harmonious and happy with your life, also reduces mental stress, lowers the blood pressure, increases blood flow to the brain, enhances your intellectual capacity and improves your immune system.
Another important way to take care of your body is of course through regular physical exercise. In studies in depressed patients, regular exercise had the same effect on depression as antidepressant medication. Physical activity also gives you better energy in daily life.
Taking care of the body also means eating right, which I wrote about in a previous blog post; How the right diet could increase your creativity.
Using the strategies
Some of these strategies may come completely naturally to you, while others may bring greater resistance. The important thing is not to try to embrace all twelve strategies, at least not all the time, but to pick out some that feel important and significant to you and that you believe could make a difference in your daily life.
Common for all of them is that they will increase the moments of joy and satisfaction in your everyday life. The best chance to succeed is if the strategies can significantly change something that makes you unhappy.
If your happiness, for example has suffered from bitterness over someone who has betrayed or deceived you, forgiveness could be the most important strategy. If instead you have grown up feeling guilty of pleasure, the most important strategy for you may be to increase the amount of moments of pleasure and enjoyment and learn not to have a bad conscience for feeling good.
But whatever you do to increase your happiness, variation is important, as doing the same thing over and over again may make you accustomed to it and that reduces the effect of the action.